A GLACIAL QUARTER

Someone suggested I dig through the couch cushions, my purse or the floor of my car and find a coin.  See what year is engraved on it. Then, try to recollect what I was doing that year and write about it. The idea intrigued me and I took up the challenge.

My desk yielded nothing useful. The first purse I ransacked was coin-less. Finally, I hit pay dirt. At the bottom of my all-purpose bag, a quarter emerged.

It took 10 minutes for me to decipher the date on the coin. It seems my eyes no long want to read such tiny numbers. The coin — a shiny quarter — celebrates a glacier. It says glacier on it, so I know that much. If there was additional information — like what glacier? — I didn’t see it. Or couldn’t read it. Whatever.

October 2011 - Blackstone Canal
October 2011 – Blackstone Canal

I felt lucky to decipher the date at all. Attempting more would be pressing my luck. I wondered where my magnifying glass had gone. It used to be on top of the desk … maybe it’s buried under several pounds of paper. Time may bring it to the surface. Or not.

I grew up in Queens, New York. One of the major east-west arteries in the borough is Hillside Avenue, always a very busy road, full of cars, trucks and buses. I crossed twice every day, on my way to school and back again. The year I was 15, I was hit by a small truck the corner of Hillside and 191st Street. We didn’t have cell phones, so I had to beg the grumpy shopkeeper who owned the candy store to let me call home so I wouldn’t have to limp up the long hill. I was obviously not going to die, but I was banged up. The driver stayed around exactly long enough — about 30 seconds — to see me get up. He knew I wasn’t dead and took off. Basic hit and run.

When my father got there, he wanted to know if I’d gotten the license plate number. I said no, I was laying on the ground and wasn’t in a good position to collect data. Dad was seriously pissed I didn’t get the number because, he said, I could have gone to college on the proceeds of the lawsuit. He never asked me how I felt or if I wanted to see a doctor. My mother — who never went to doctors for any reason — deduced I hadn’t broken anything. Good enough, I guess. I limped off to take a bath, feeling vaguely there was something wrong with the picture.

That was in 1962. I was a junior in high school.

Back to the quarter and the glacier. Hillside Avenue is precisely where the forward movement of the glacier that covered the region during the last ice age, stopped. Hillside Avenue, with its shops, bus stops and endless traffic was also, it would seem, a significant geological and archaeological marker. Whenever something was being built along the road, the archaeologists and paleontologists go explore it first. They’ve found all kinds of artifacts — the bones of extinct ice age animals, pottery and stone spearheads. I haven’t heard that they’ve found any mammoths, but I might have missed it. It was just a quarter-mile from where I grew up. Weird, eh?

As for 2011, I wasn’t doing much that year. I’d had cancer the previous year. 2011 was my recovery year. I had a slough of despond from which to emerge and a lot of physical issues to deal with. I also had to come to grips with a significantly changed body.

I took a lot of photographs in 2011 and read a lot of books. Which pretty much sums up the year. I remember because it was a particularly bright, colorful autumn and I got some of my best-ever foliage shots.

If I were going to give 2011 a title, I’d call it the year I didn’t die, Part III. That will do. There will (I hope) be other chapters. Stay tuned.

WAITING TO GO HOME

I moved to New England 35 years ago. I don’t want to sound like a cliché, but it feels as if it was no more than few months ago. On some level, I think like a transplanted New Yorker. Yet I’ve lived up here longer than I lived in New York. I’ve live here more than half my life.

P.S. 35

I grew up in Queens, New York. Holliswood. I went to P.S. 35 — the same school Art Buchwald attended (yes, I know, it’s not a big deal but it’s the best P.S. 35 offers) — J.H.S. 109 (which my husband also attended, but in a different year) and finally, Jamaica High School. That’s about as New York as it gets.

I was 30 years old when I moved overseas and settled in Jerusalem. I returned — to Massachusetts — in 1987. Other than visits, I haven’t lived in New York  since 1978. Odd how the early years, where you grew up, carries more weight than places you live later. Our “defaults” get set by where we take our first breaths, where we attend school.

I am hooked on the four season year. Autumn is the most evocative season, the crunching of leaves under the soles of brand new school shoes. The start of the school year. The year really begins in September — I am forever ruled by a school calendar that ceased being relevant in 1967.

Drifting leaves

When I was in Israel, I desperately missed Autumn. I yearned for snow that never fell. Even though now I could live without seeing another flake. And I wanted the ocean. I wanted to smell salt in the air, hear breakers hitting the shore. That feeling of the sea washing the sand out from under your bare feet as you stand in the surf with the waves lapping around your shins.

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I don’t want to go back to New York to live. I really don’t. I love the city but not that way, not to live there. Visiting New York is fun and full of memories, but I don’t want to make a home there. New England is home now and I can’t imagine living elsewhere.

We’ve got all four seasons (okay, three and a quarter really because spring is minimal). But a New England autumn is the best, though it isn’t as long as it was a few degrees of latitude south. As for winter?

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This valley outsnows just about every place except maybe central Nebraska and northern Minnesota. Not quite as cold and I don’t mind that.

It’s beautiful here … yet sometimes, I feel like a New Yorker, living here and waiting to go home. Why is that?

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School days: Boredom and Fear in Equal Measure

Childhood is a challenge. We romanticize childhood as a time of innocence and play, but childhood isn’t necessarily easy.

Many of us struggled. We had problems at home we couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about, social issues grownups dismissed, and lived with bullying tantamount to torture. Even today, with the attention these issues get in the press, things have not really changed. Bullying is as much a problem today as it was when I was a child. Teachers still ignore it and parents dismiss it. Kids continue to avoid talking about bad things that happen at home.

Awareness is not a cure. Publicity does not change what happens at home or in the schoolyard.

I was a very bright, precocious child. I was by no means the only smart kid in the school, but I probably had the worst social skills, was the most inept at sports, and talked like a 40-year old. Among social outcasts, I was an outcast. I lived in books and imagination.

I learned to read more or less instantly and spent the next six years trying to stay awake while being invisible.

I was either bored to tears or terrified of being sent out to the schoolyard. In third grade, I hid in the cloak room in the hopes no one would miss me. I found a stack of books and read them in the semi-dark by the light of one dim bulb.

The teacher was furious. I had read all the readers for my grade and all the grades to come through sixth grade. I would have read more but they found my hiding place and made me come out. The principal called my mother to complain I had read all the readers. My mother pointed out I might benefit from a more challenging curriculum. She reasoned if I could read all the readers in an hour, the work was too easy. They didn’t get it.

They wanted my mother to punish me for reading too much. She didn’t stop laughing for days. She thought it was hilarious and retold the story at every family gathering. I didn’t think it was nearly as funny because that teacher hated me after that and made third grade a special Hell. It wasn’t only other kids picking on me; my teacher was leading the charge. I didn’t understand what was going on. I just knew that no one liked me.

Eventually the teachers at P.S. 35 tired of me. I was annoying. I answered questions in class until I was told to shut up. After I was no longer allowed to participate in class, I fell asleep or snuck off to read in the girl’s room. The teachers must have had a meeting about me or something, because an agreement was reached that everyone would benefit from my absence. I was fond of arts and crafts so the solution was to send me to the art room after the Pledge of Allegiance. I spent many happy hours alone, experimenting with paint, library paste, and oak tag.

I was content in my little world of paint and glue, but I was not getting an education. I never learned arithmetic because I was in the art room gluing stuff together. The smell of library paste is deeply evocative … and I can’t do fractions or long division.

I started high school at 13 where my level of boredom reached epic heights. I was blessed by teachers whose idea of teaching was to read the textbook in a monotone. These classes were inevitably the first classes of the day when I was the sleepiest. I chipped a tooth one morning when my head fell forward and hit the desk.

I was so far ahead in English and History I was off the charts. At the same time, I fell ever further behind in maths and hard science. My pleas for help were ignored because I had a high IQ and was supposed to figure it out on my own. I suspect the world is divided between those for whom numbers are a language and those for whom numbers and hieroglyphics are the same.

Numbers did not speak to me. I was in my thirties reading Horatio Hornblower when I realized trigonometry was used to calculate trajectories and navigation. I wish I’d known that when I was trying to understand what I was doing.

Now an officially protected landmark, my alma mater was a beautiful building.

I was by no means the only lost soul in math classes. There was always a group of us who sat there with glazed eyes, wondering why we needed this and if failing it would end our hopes of going to college.

As for science, Jamaica High School was run by practical administrators. The group of us who sat paralyzed in math classes were all college-bound. It was clear we were never going to pass physics or chemistry, but needed a science credit. So they invented a science course for us. It was called “The History of Science.” We spent an entire year discussing Stonehenge. I loved it. I completed the science requirement, graduated with an academic diploma, and continued on to college.

My real education consisted of books, both those I read by choice and those my mother made me read. She made sure I read good books. “Growth of the Soil” by Knut Hamsen, a Nobel prize-winning author who authored the world’s most depressing novels stands out in memory. Then, there was Romain Rolland whose novel in 10-volumes, Jean-Christophe was an unbelievably long, fictionalized biography of Beethoven. Rolland got a Nobel prize in literature and I read his tome, but have never met anyone else who read it. I assume the Nobel Committee read it too, but I never met them.

The New York Public Library is an amazing place. The lions that stand guard in front of the building are almost as famous as the library itself.

I cut school a lot. Living in New York had benefits. A subway token could take you anywhere. I played hooky to go to the huge New York Public Library, the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Hayden Planetarium. My mother knew, but pretended she didn’t. She could hardly approve my skipping school, but I wasn’t hanging out at the mall: I was getting an education on my own terms.

One of New York’s most impressive and beautiful buildings, inside and out, the Met is my favorite museum. The Cloisters is actually a part of the Met and houses its medieval art collection.

There were no admission charges for museums back then and New York is rich with museums. The Guggenheim was just being built, so I didn’t get there until college and it always made me a trifle seasick walking that strange corkscrew path, but the Metropolitan Museum of Art wasn’t just art: it was the history of the world in one huge building.

It was arranged as a time line. At the entrance, you started in the mummy room of a recreated Egyptian tomb where they had a couple of real mummies. The viewing room was in semi darkness and deliciously spooky. As you proceeded through the museum, each area represented a successive time period with recreated rooms full of furniture of the period and paintings, sculpture and other artifacts. You wound your way through until you reached the modern era … which is where the bathrooms were.

If you had to use the facilities, you navigated human history forward and backward, the closest I’ve ever come to time travel. If you had to go badly enough, you had a long trot through world history. I absorbed a lifetime of art, architecture, and history there. I snoozed through history classes in high school and college and still got As. No teacher or professor came close to offering comparable education. It is a fabulous museum. If you have never been there and happen to visit New York, don’t miss it.

The Cloisters on the Hudson River, Fort Tryon Park. It is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I spent days in the dusty basements of the big library, exploring the stacks and reading old manuscripts. I went to the Cloisters where I pretended I was living in mediaeval Europe. I also developed a lifelong passion for studying the middle ages and I can still bore everyone to tears with details of life in the 14th century. It’s a solitary passion.

For the last decade and a bit, I’ve watched my granddaughter fight her way through the public school system, grappling with the same issues I recall. She seems to have inherited the family gene for poor math skills. Despite a lot of talk, I don’t see much improvement in teaching methods. They are different, but equally ineffective.

Bright students are still mostly ignored. Help is given to the kids who struggle to learn, but it’s the kind of help that sounds a lot better than it is. Many kids still have no idea why or what they are doing. And schools still don’t feel any particular obligation to expend scarce resources on high IQ students who are presumed able to learn without help.

I did well enough in school. My grades were unspectacular both in high school and college. I graduated college with a 3.2 average, more or less B+ depending on how you calculate it. I did it without studying except in the few classes where a professor pushed me to really work.

I wonder what I might have achieved had I studied, if my education had been a challenge rather than a bore?

In the end, I had an okay career. Not spectacular, but pretty good. I learned in the workplace most of what I failed to learn in the classroom. My work required math and it turned out if I knew why I was doing it, I could do it. I needed context, not rote.

Our educational system wastes so much potential. Art and music classes have been eliminated. Help is reserved for problem learners and not much of that. Our schools’ aim is to create positive statistics on standardized tests, not to help students achieve their potential. Instead of increasing America’s investment in education, we cut resources and eliminate teachers. Then we wonder how come the U.S. is no longer a leader in the arts, math, science, or anything else. We get what we pay for: mediocrity.

IQ scores and standardized tests encourage rote memorization. Creativity, artistic talent, and original thinking are not part of an IQ score. You might be a musical genius, but it won’t get you through school unless you can pass standardized tests that involve no learning, just the ability to memorize facts and spit them out. Educators’ jobs are to get students to pass exams. Whether or not they learn anything is immaterial.

So much potential thrown away. It’s our future we’re tossing out. Everyone’s future.

 

A Palace in Queens: Loew’s Valencia

English: Looking northwest across Jamaica Aven...
Looking northwest across Jamaica Avenue at Loews Valencia.

Growing up, my favorite theater was the Valencia in Jamaica. No mere movie theater, it was an experience, a Hollywood production its own right. Here with my brother Matthew, I first experienced the glorious, magical world of movies.

It wasn’t my first trip to the movies, but it was my first trip to a real movie palace.

That first excursion to the Valencia was on a rainy Saturday afternoon. With not much else  to do, off we went to see Shane with Alan Ladd. It had just opened at the Valencia. It was 1953. I was 6. When I had to go to the ladies room, I became so enchanted by the theater, I got lost. The ceiling of the Valencia was called “atmospheric,” a dark distant sky full of realistic twinkling stars.

Not to mention the fountains and strange Rococo architecture the likes of which I doubt were ever seen in a “real” building and certainly never by me, even in my imagination. I couldn’t pull my eyes away and eventually forgot where we were seated in that vast building.

An usher with a flashlight had to help me find my family.

Today, as a Pentecostal Church.

The Valencia was in downtown Jamaica, Queens, about 3 or 4 miles from my house. It opened in 1929 and was the first of the five Loew’s ‘Wonder’ Theaters. Others would be in various parts New York, including Astoria, Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. My sister-in-law graduated in the Loew’s Paradise in the Bronx, twin theater to the Valencia.

Inside the Valencia.

The decorations are described variously as a mix of Spanish Colonial and pre-Columbian, but that doesn’t do it justice. It was fantasy land, and it was entirely unlike anything in reality. Certainly unlike anything in my reality or experience. The theater was enormous, with seating for 3,554, including a vast orchestra section and several balconies.

Architect John Eberson supposedly based his design on Spanish architecture motifs, using wrought iron railings, ornate tile work, sculpture and murals. I suspect a drug induced hallucinogenic state, but perhaps he just had an amazing imagination.

Its extraordinary combination of brick and glazed terra-cotta outside was purportedly inspired by Spanish and Mexican architecture of the Baroque or “Churrigueresque” period, though I have my doubts about that. Details included elaborate terra-cotta pilasters, cherubs, half-shells, volutes, floral swags, curvilinear gables and decorative finials … and of course within, lay that astonishing “atmospheric ceiling” full of stars.

English: 3-Manual, 8-Rank, Robert-Morton Organ.
The Valencia’s 3-Manual, 8-Rank, Robert-Morton Organ. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1935, the Valencia began to show double features. By the 1950s, it had become my family’s the “go to” movie theater for a special Saturday afternoon. This continued right through the 1960’s.

The Loew’s Valencia was the most successful movie theatre in Queens. Its location in downtown Jamaica, which was then the primary shopping area in the borough and for Long Island before shopping malls changed all that, combined with the theater’s ability (part of the MGM system) to show new movies a week before any other theater in the borough, made it wildly popular.

valencia
The Valencia (Photo credit: ho visto nina volare)

As for me, I’d have happily gone there even if no movie were showing. The theater was a star. Just those twinkling stars held me transfixed, hypnotized.

I would stand staring up at it until someone asked me if I was alright. I wasn’t, really. I was lost in the stars.

The Valencia ended its life as a movie theatre in May 1977. Since then, it has been the Tabernacle of Prayer for All People church.

At least it was spared the fate of so many other movie palaces. It was not leveled to make way for yet another cookie-cutter cinemaplex. That’s something.

Too much of a good thing? Richelle Mead’s Storm Born

Richelle Mead

Eugenie Markham — AKA Odile Dark Swan — fights creatures from the Otherworld for a living. She a shaman and she’s at the top of her game. It’s one Hell of a game she plays. Even so, she find it slightly disturbing to discover her name has become public knowledge in the Otherworld. Her true name, the one by which she can be summoned. It becomes even more disturbing when she realizes every bizarre creature she meets wants to mate her or rape her. Except for those who would rather just kill her. Not that she’s unused to danger, but this is a bit much.

When she meets an incredibly handsome, sexy veterinarian and falls into bed with him — not normally her style at all — then realizes that he’s not entirely human … well, that’s one unpleasant surprise over the line.

The shocks keep coming. Eugenie learns that she is not who she thought she was. In fact, hardly anyone or anything is what she thought it was and she has a lot of readjusting to do. Her most fundamental beliefs about good and evil, right and wrong are up for grabs. What she has to learn is overwhelming, but what she needs to unlearn is even harder.

This is a sexy, fun romp through the land of the Fae, or as they like to call themselves, “The Shining Ones.” There are Kings and Queens, battles, shape-shifters and plenty of sex. As in most fantasy books, all the guys are incredibly handsome. The women are astoundingly beautiful.

Sex makes the world explode. Magic is everywhere. There were times when the story reminded me more of something by Terry Pratchett than Richelle Mead. There’s a hint of wackiness in the story that made it sometimes extremely funny, clearly intentionally.

Storm Born is the first of a series that also includes The Thorn Queen,  Shadow Heir and Iron Crowned. All are available  as paperbacks and on Kindle, and as audiobooks from Audible.com.

I listened to this as well as reading it. Although I got through it, I did not at all like the narrator who was stiff and rather stilted and seemed miscast. I was disappointed in the audiobook and suggest that you might be happier reading this on Kindle or paper.

– – –

Back to the Zone

When I was first married, we lived in an apartment on the second floor of a building at the end of a long hallway. It was in one of two identical buildings. We lived in apartment 2Q, a corner apartment. It had better ventilation than the apartments in the middle of the building. It was also quieter being farther away from the elevator.

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One day, having taken a bus home from downtown, I went in through the front and walked all the way down the corridor to our apartment. As I started to put my key in the door, I realized that there was a nameplate on the door. It said “2Q, Kincaid.”

My name was not then and is not now Kincaid, but the sign on the door said 2Q. It was the correct unit, but apparently I didn’t live there. I took a deep breath, walked back to the elevator then went back to the flat. It still said “Kincaid.”

I immediately realized what had happened. I had slipped through into a parallel universe. I was in another dimension where I didn’t exist. I’d been replaced by someone named Kincaid.

It took me a while, standing there and staring at the door before it occurred to me that I was in the wrong building. The two buildings were the same and I hadn’t been paying attention.

What’s interesting is not that I went into the wrong building but that I immediately assumed I’d slipped into the Twilight Zone. Would most people, finding themselves in that situation, conclude they’d slipped into a parallel universe? Or would think they had maybe walked into the wrong building? Which would you do?

I  suspect off-center thinking is part of creativity and certainly part of being a writer. A little piece of my brain is always busy recording events as future fodder for writing. Often, even in the middle of what could be a serious — even dangerous — situation, I have a little voice reminding me what a terrific story I’ll get out of it.

The problem with seeing everything as a potential story is that there is a tendency to hold oneself a bit apart, to be more concerned with watching than living. For almost ten years, I stopped taking pictures because I thought taking pictures was preventing me from truly seeing. I felt I was missing the party. Eventually, I went back to taking pictures and photography is the way I deal with the visual elements of life. I can’t stop seeing pictures framed into photographs, so I might as well carry a camera.

Nonetheless, I believe I was partially right. When you see life through a lens or are constantly planning how to write this thing that’s happening, you are not fully engaged in whatever is going on. Is that bad? Perhaps it’s just how I am, who I am. I can’t make myself not see pictures, not hear stories. It’s just how I relate to the world.

What about you?

What universe is this?

When I was first married we lived in an apartment on the second floor of a building that was one of two identical brick buildings. We lived in apartment 2Q, at the far end of the hallway … a corner apartment which had better ventilation than apartments in the middle.

I didn’t drive yet.

One day, having taken the bus home from shopping, I went in through the front and proceeded all the way down the hall to our apartment. As I started to put my key in the door, I realized that there was a nameplate on the door. It said “2Q, Kincaid.”

Not my name. Right apartment, but not mine. Hmm.

I took a deep breath, walked back to the elevator then went back to the apartment. It still said “Kincaid.”

I immediately realized what had happened. I had slipped through into a parallel universe, another dimension. I didn’t exist. I’d been replaced by someone named Kincaid. It took me a while,  standing there and staring at the door before it occurred to me that I was in the wrong building. It was a simple enough mistake: the two building were identical and I just hadn’t been paying attention.

What’s interesting is not that I went into the wrong building but that I immediately assumed I’d slipped into my own personal Twilight Zone. The building on Front Street in Hempstead is student housing now, but it was a private apartment rental building back then.

Would most people, finding themselves in such a situation jump to the conclusion that they’d slipped into a parallel universe? Or would think they had maybe walked into the wrong building?

What would YOU think?

I sometimes wonder if a lot of my ability to get through a variety of bizarre and scary situations was because I didn’t relate to life as real but rather as if life — MY life — was a long book in which I was the main character. It was the narrator‘s fault.

From when I was perhaps 4 or 5 years old until a few years ago, I lived life in the third person. I had a narrator. She sat on my shoulder and told my story. She added “he said” and “she said” and provided full descriptions of people, places, and events as they were happening. She flushed out experiences by providing context and commentary. She’d always been there, or at least as far as I could remember so it seemed normal to me, though distracting.

This was nothing like “hearing voices.” The narrator was not independent. She WAS me. She didn’t talk to me but about me. She wrote me. She was a mini-me, perched on my shoulder, always watching, then instantly translating everything into a third person narrative. I was detached but watchful. I saw everything and remembered everything, especially what everyone said and exactly how they said it. I was almost never fully engaged, but I was an excellent witness.

Does — or did — everyone have a narrator at least sometimes, or it was only me? I’ve always wondered if it was something to do with being a writer.

A few years ago, I realized my narrator was gone. Did she slip away a little at a time or suddenly depart without so much as a note of farewell? I wonder why she left, why she was there in the first place. Gone as inexplicably as she’d arrived.

By the time I sat down and wrote a novel, she had been gone a while, though that was when I noticed her absence.

No longer perched on my shoulder, I’m totally in my life now, down and dirty. Without a narrator to tell my life story, I find I am much more surprised by experiences. I have lost the ability to detach. Life hurts more without a narrator.  I’m more real and I’m not the main character in a saga … just another confused soul on the road from wherever to someplace else.